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AUTO CLUB 400
Cinderella Comes in Third

This article is from our archives and has not been updated and integrated with our "new" site yet... Even so, it's still awesome - so keep reading!

Published on Mon, Mar 23, 2015

By: The LACar Editorial Staff

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Eric Stonestreet drives the pace car in front of Kurt Busch during warm-up laps (Gabriela Moya)

Story by Brian Kennedy Photographs by Gabriela Moya It was a long road for everyone on Sunday in the Auto Club 400, which turned out to be 418 miles due to NASCAR’s version of “overtime.” And in the end, Cinderella didn’t win, as he was supposed to. That is, Kurt Busch, off a suspension and having won the pole and all the practices leading up to the race, didn’t manage the victory. He was oh-so-close though, and his battle with Kevin Harvick was really the story of the day, until Brad Keselowski spoiled the party on the way-past-the-last last lap. The race on the two-mile track was scheduled for 200 laps, obviously, and yet two late cautions extended it, with the final one coming with the following cars lined up in front of everyone else: Busch, Harvick, Gordon, Menard, and Truex. Where was Keselowski? Back in the pack, only to emerge, charge past Harvick and Busch through turn one and into two, and hold on for the win. He led just that one lap. In fact, if you do the math, he led the race for about 1.4 miles. But nobody will remember anything else than that he won. Except you, because you’re going to be treated to the Harvick-Busch (and others) story right here. For most of the day, it was Busch, Harvick, Earnhardt Jr., and Johnson dueling for the lead. Busch held it six times for 65 laps. Denny Hamlin twice for 56, Kenseth three times for 43, Harvick three for 34, and a few others for a handful. There were nine leaders altogether. Busch surged out front off the start, going 182 mph into turn one of lap one. By lap two, that number was 204 mph. On lap five, Harvick pressed him for the lead and took it, leading laps 6-24. The leaders were already 16 seconds ahead of the last car on track, with a lap taking about 40 seconds. The two of them, in fact, stretched the lead to about four seconds over Kenseth, alone in third place. Also working his way into the mix—Denny Hamlin. The slowest cars, by the way, were pacing turn one at about 197 mph, and by lap 19, the leaders were putting some cars one lap down. After a caution, 37 cars were on the lead lap, and Kenseth was in front. Then Hamlin took it over for a long while (32-61), and cars started making green-flag pit stops. Hamlin jumped out on the start once more, leading laps 63-88, out front by as much as two seconds. The speed on average, including caution periods, was 160 mph, and our protagonists, Harvick and Busch, were second and third. The fifth-place car, Joey Logano, was about 8.3 seconds behind the leader. Meanwhile, Dale Earnhardt Jr. was working his way forward, up to eighth, from a start of 17th.

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Eventual winner Brad Keselowski enters the track (Gabriela Moya)

By lap 98, Busch was again leading, with Harvick just behind him. Caution came out once more. After Truex Jr. led several laps, Busch went through the center while Harvick went high to go around Truex, and they dragged Logano, Kenseth, and Jimmie Johnson in their wake. Truex, meanwhile, was slowly fading back. Around lap 130, Busch-Harvick were out by a long shot, with Logano trailing them by about 7.4 seconds. And in fact, Harvick was almost two seconds back of Busch. This was looking like a heck of a day for a comeback. Their gap increased over the next ten laps, to 8.682 seconds. Remember, the track is 2 miles long, and traversing that distance at these speeds is about a 40-second endeavor. Yeah, they were way ahead. Then Busch nicked the wall, his balance going away. He and Harvick hit the pits together, and came off pit road together, too, splitting car #35 (Cole Whitt). They were both dealing with lapped traffic in this part of the race, and this allowed Busch to get away while Harvick deal with the slow guys. Each pitted again, and Harvick took the lead on the track from Busch at lap 150, beating him by a .686 second gap. But they were again stretching it out on third, who was Kenseth, 6.521 seconds behind the lead. That same Kenseth was ahead of them after a caution at lap 154, and he and Busch drove off while Johnson challenged Harvick for third. They were now entering turn one at 205 mph. This was the first time Keselowski was heard from. He passed Harvick for fourth on lap 162. He was second by lap 166. So it was Kenseth, Keselowski, then Busch, Johnson, and Harvick. On lap 172, Kenseth led Busch, while Harvick, Keselowski, and Johnson were tight from third to fifth. With 20 to go (in the regulation distance), the lineup was Kenseth, Harvick, Busch, Johnson, and Earnhardt. Busch was right on the bumper of Harvick into turn one, though. Another caution came out. Kenseth was too aggressive on the concrete of the pit boxes, burning out his rear end getting out of the box. So that left Harvick, Hamlin, Busch, Keselowski, and Johnson. But Hamlin was penalized for a tire getting away on pit road, and had to come down pit road. Meanwhile, Kenseth was in and out again. So that left the fight to Harvick and Busch. Keselowski lurked in fifth.

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Jeff Gordon is delayed by a problem with his helmet (Gabriela Moya)

Busch stayed out front from lap 190-200, then again during and after a late caution, from 203-208. He did this by holding off Harvick through turns three and four and stretching his lead through turns 1-2. It looked like Busch’s day. Keselowski mostly stayed back about fourth. Caution came at lap 200, debris, and again at 204-207. The restart saw Busch ahead of Harvick, the former outside and the latter low. Harvick stayed low, and Keselowski got between them, second with a lap to go. He got the lead between turns one and two, and won the race in a fashion that was spectacular but which erased Kurt Busch’s magically charmed day. To offer another perspective on what happened late, here’s more detail: on the first “green-white-checker” (a restart that takes place at or after the scheduled length, with the green lap followed by the white lap and the checker coming out at the end of that circuit), a couple of cars—those of Gordon and Stewart—had gambled and taken two tires. This forced Busch to drive up through the middle on the restart to gain first again. “He’s gonna win. He’s gonna win” was the thought in the minds of the faithful and those who like a good underdog story. Then the caution flew once more. Wait. Underdog? It’s not like Busch is not a former NASCAR champion. (He won the Cup in 2004.) But Busch has toiled for a couple of weaker teams since his heyday, and he’s just come off a suspension levied for reasons that you can read about on the internet and which I not going to dignify by discussing here. Let’s just say that he came back from being out by fighting tooth and nail to get that pole on Friday and dominate the rest of the weekend. It would have created the perfect ending to the story of a chastened and (hopefully) changed person to see him win on Sunday afternoon. What forces were at work to try to make this story not turn out “right”? The battle was between Busch and Harvick, who has been scary fast dating back to last season. Dale Earnhardt Jr. even said on Saturday after the Xfinity race that Harvick has found something, that he’s better than everyone else right now. That it would take a while for everyone else to catch up. Would NASCAR want its current wonder boy upstaged by an upstart that they recently had to discipline?

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Kurt Busch during a pit stop (Gabriela Moya)

That’s why the Busch-Harvick battle which went on most of the day was so compelling. Busch wasn’t supposed to challenge, but he’d done more than that. He’d led many, many laps. 65 in all. Harvick had been out front for 34. The rivalry was on display with about ten laps to go of the originally scheduled 200. Busch was ahead, and Harvick was charging. (Keselowski, up until that point not the story on the day, was, it must be noted, lurking in third, with Earnhardt Jr. fourth). Anyway, Busch would charge through turns one and two ahead. And then, every lap, Harvick would get right to his bumper through turns three and four. Past the start-finish line, the lead would stretch out a little bit for Busch, and he would keep it coming out of those two turns, one and two. Keselowski, as the 193rd lap wound down, dropped down to fifth, behind Earnhardt Jr. and Johnson. But the real battle was Harvick-Busch, and the crowd, every time they went by, gave them encouragement. Was it cheers for Harvick, who is quickly becoming a Dale Earnhardt-like favorite for his winning ways, and his nastiness? Was it for Busch, the longtime bad boy, childish in his ways and uproarious with his temper, but now seemingly rehabilitated? Hard to say. But when two guys are, as they say, “up on the wheel” the way these two guys were, hardcore racing fans are going to be on their feet. It only seemed right that these two would be the ones to decide the victory. So where did Keselowski figure in? His day saw him going from an eighth-place start to the top five, where he lurked for a long while, down to the 10th spot on lap 110, a dive which lasted about thirty laps. He would make it up to sixth, then third by lap 170, and second on 190. But he then went back to sixth on lap 200. And the final, crazy move that got him the win? Even he couldn’t describe it. Here’s what he said to the press after the race: “I don’t remember how the race finished . . . . My short-term memory is not that strong.” He was so focused on the moment, he said, he couldn’t recall the details. “There’s a lot going on, trying to put it all in perspective,” he said.

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Brad Keselowski at Victory Lane (Gabriela Moya)

He later added, “It’s hard for me to run y’all through it. I almost need to see the replay, because I feel like when you are in moments like the end of a race as a race car driver, and you have the goal so clearly in front of you, you become so focused that you . . . that you turn the memory function of your brain off. And you use every bit of brainpower you have to focus on the task ahead. For me, that was knowing I had a car with newer tires, that was stronger and faster, and that if I picked the right lanes, and if I read the cars in front of me just right, I would pass them and win the race for our team. When you hit that spot mentally, you can’t remember those things. I honestly don’t remember the end of the race, and I won’t really jog my mind until I watch it on replay, because I was so focused on the task at hand, trying to win the race, knowing the car and the opportunity that I had in front of me, wanting to make the most of it.” K and the guys on pit road, we caught some breaks, and we made the most of the breaks we caught, and that was kind of the story of our race. I looked like we were probably going to finish sixth or seventh there, and that yellow came out, and we came in and pitted, and drove up a little bit, and caught another yellow. We thought, ‘well, now what do we do?’ and so Paul made the call to come down pit road and put four tire on. When he said that, I said, ‘This could either go really good or really bad,’ I didn’t know which one it was going to be.” He said that some drivers took two tires and others used other strategies, but, “On the restart, we were just able to find our way through the lanes and find our way to the front. Somehow we ended up in victory lane leading the last lap.” He would have been happy had the race ended after the first late caution, though if it had, he wouldn’t have won, obviously. “We went from 17th to sixth in one turn, and when the [second late] yellow came out, I was kind of mad. I thought we had a big run, and I thought maybe we sat there in third. I hadn’t reset, but Paul actually said we might get back up and win the race. I said, ‘Oh, oh, yeah.’ He really kept me calm on that one.” After all the work and all the excitement, Keselowski put it best perhaps when he summarized, “It’s picking the right lane and hoping it comes together, and for us, it did at the end.” What that means for Kurt Busch and Kevin Harvick, Johnson, Gordon, Kenseth, and on and on among the leading teams is, well, it’s not simple. But it is disappointing, a Cinderella story gone wrong. Read Brian Kennedy’s Nuts About NASCAR: Auto Club Xfinity 300 Read Brian Kennedy’s How To Make NASCAR Relevant Again Read Brian Kennedy’s Harvick Does Hockey Follow Brian on Twitter @growinguphockey For more information about the Auto Club races, click here. [nggallery id=2015autoclub400]

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